Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: Commuter in Tokyo by Michael Wolf

 Tokyo Compression, #75 by Michael Wolf, 2009

Commuting on absurdly overcrowded trains in a major metropolis is one of the ghastly experiences of modern life. Bodies are crammed against each other and personal space collapses. It’s unnatural and nobody likes it, but most of the time commuters control their impulses, withdraw into private mental sanctuaries, and cope. If they want to keep their jobs in the city, they have no alternative. Tomorrow will be exactly the same.

No city has a bigger reputation for claustrophobic traveling conditions than Tokyo. Since 1997, Michael Wolf, a German photographer and artist, has been shooting pictures of captive passengers, collected in three editions of his photobook Tokyo Compression. Wolf pursued his quarry from Monday to Friday between 7.30 and 8.45 in the morning rush hour at a station on the Odakyu line where he could get up close to the window and observe the effect of commuters pushing their way into the train through the doors on the opposite side. The people press against the glass, which streams with condensation. They look horribly uncomfortable. Wolf has suggested that they feel ashamed to be observed so closely in such unpleasant circumstances. There is no escape from his camera so they muster their dignity, shut their eyes—surely in most cases this can’t be inemuri, the Japanese art of napping in public—or conceal their faces with their hands.

This photograph has a different quality from others in the series. There is something curiously serene and almost priestly about the man, with his high forehead, arching eyebrows, and neatly cut hair. Even his dark jacket looks like a cassock. The slight tilt of his head, and the surgical mask, worn by some Japanese commuters as health protection, reinforce the impression of inwardness—he won’t allow the crush of fellow passengers to derail his peace of mind. Most extraordinary are his hands, raised to his chest and clasped as though he is engaged in an act of silent prayer as the train hurtles through the city. And all this is happening within the arch of a window that inescapably resembles the frame of a painting; the blurred colors around his head could be smears of pigment. The man looks like a Brother in some latter-day Sacred Order of the Subway. A sixteenth-century painting by Jan Massys of a praying monk has all the same elements except for the mask and train. Lapsing out is the best way to handle an intolerable degree of compression. This commuter has taken it to a higher plane.


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